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Monty Python: The Albums (Part 3)

Just as Matching Tie and Handkerchief was hitting British record stores at the end of ’73, the second draft of the Monty Python and the Holy Grail script had been completed, and producers and investors were being rounded up. The script still needed more work…and Python Productions needed an influx of cash. The prestigious 2,200-seat Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in London’s West End offered the Pythons good terms for performing their live show over a two-week residency in February. 

Shaggy ’74 Python, captured with a fish-eye lens no less. Is that four or is it five buttons undone on Chapman’s shirt?

As soon as their Drury Lane run was announced, overwhelming demand caused the length of the residency to be doubled.

They fine-tuned the set list from their British/Canadian tour the previous year. The official title of their Drury Lane run was Monty Python’s First Farewell Tour (Repeat) (with “NOT CANCELLED” stencilled over the posters). The experience was less like a night at the theater, and more like a rock concert by a veteran band. The audience wasn’t necessarily there to see something original, they wanted the hits

From February 26 through March 23, 1974, the Pythons trod the theatrical boards, night after night, as audiences lapped up (and often recited along with) “Nudge Nudge,” “Bruces,” “Travel Agent,” “Argument Clinic,” “Dead Parrot,” “The Lumberjack Song,” and plenty of other stuff. Neil Innes was on hand to provide some musical interludes, but regular Python supporting player Carol Cleveland was unavailable. Her parts were covered by Australian actress Lyn Ashley, who had done a few bits on the TV show, and at the time was married to Eric Idle. (Her credit at the end of the Flying Circus episodes in which she appeared simply read “Mrs. Idle.”) The audience was often dotted with celebrities, including members of the Beatles, the Who, and the Rolling Stones, but despite the theater having a designated “royal box,” no members of the royal family showed up. The royal box was occupied nightly by a pantomime dummy of Princess Margaret.

Neil Innes

“It was the nearest any of us got to a proper job,” says Terry Jones. “We would kiss our wives good-bye, work the night shift in the theater, get roaring drunk afterwards, roll home and do it all over again the following night.” At least a few mornings were spent tightening the Holy Grail script into its third (and final) draft, which was completed on March 15.

On the final night, Jacquemin set up his recording equipment, and the result was Python’s first real live album (their 1970 debut album made for the BBC, although performed in front of a small audience, doesn’t really count). The atmosphere is audibly electric, with over-the-top enthusiasm from the crowd, and superbly-performed comedy classics from the cast. Neil Innes, caught up in the final-night excitement, improvised by singing several lines of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music right in the middle of the “Election Special” sketch. The Pythons found the moment funny enough to leave on the record, and paid the necessary Rodgers & Hammerstein royalties. 

Monty Python Live at Drury Lane 

Released: June 28, 1974 (U.K. only)

Produced by Andre Jacquemin, David Howman, and Alan Bailey

Track Listing:

Side One

1. Introduction

2. Llamas

3. Gumby Flower Arranging

4. Secret Service

5. One-Man Wrestling

6. World Forum (Communist Quiz)

7. Idiot Song (Neil Innes)

8. Albatross

9. The Colonel

10. Nudge Nudge

11. Cocktail Bar

12. Travel Agent

Side Two

1. Spot the Brain Cell

2. Bruces/Philosophers Song

3. Argument Clinic

4. I’ve Got Two Legs (Terry Gilliam’s Song on a Wire)

5. Four Yorkshireman

6. Election Special

7. The Lumberjack Song

8. Dead Parrot

A small amount of studio work was required later to put in some narration and links. These sorts of extra little clean-up tasks were usually taken on by good sport and all-around team player Michael Palin.

Four Yorkshiremen

The Pythons were quite aware that the audiences that flocked to the Theatre Royal were there to see their favorite sketches, but they wouldn’t be Python if they didn’t include some surprises. The whole show opened with “Llamas,” an obscure, 90-second deep-cut sketch from the first series of Flying Circus, in which a group of flamenco guitarists and dancers provide a partly-sung public service announcement in Spanish about the dangers of the deadly aquatic llama, with much stomping, guitar strumming, castanet-clicking, and exaggerated rolling of rs. “Tiene dos orejas, un corazón, una frente y un pico para comer miel. Pero está provisto de aletas para nadar. Las llamas son más grandes que las ranas.” (“It has two ears, a heart, a forehead, and a beak for eating honey. But it is provided with fins for swimming. Llamas are larger than frogs.”) When the Pythons staged their massive reunion show at London’s O2 Arena in 2014, they chose to open with “Llamas.”

From the vault of really old material came “Four Yorkshiremen,” which would remain in every iteration of the Python stage show from that point forward. First written by Cleese and Chapman for 1967’s At Last the 1948 Show, the four Yorkshiremen of the title relax in comfort, sipping wine and wearing white dinner jackets as they compare, in thick Yorkshire accents, how deprived their childhoods were. (“There were a ‘undred and fifty of us living in a shoebox in t’ middle of t’ road.” “Cardboard box?” “Aye.” “You were lucky. We lived for three months in a paper bag in a septic tank.”) “Secret Service” was also lifted from the 1948 Show, but it didn’t have the staying power of “Yorkshiremen.” Another old sketch that became a beloved part of the Python Live repertoire, “Custard Pies,” was left off the album because it was just too visual. (A relic from Jones & Palin’s old Oxford Revue days, “Custard Pies” was so popular it was borrowed by the Cambridge guys for their revue),

Due to the fact the Michael Palin — the original performer of “The Lumberjack Song” — had often lost his voice by the end of a show, Eric Idle ended up taking over that closing number from him. “The plaid shirt and suspenders suited both of us,” Palin says. (He reclaimed the part for the O2 shows.)

The big misfire, in my opinion, is “Cocktail Bar,” a rejected (for good reason) third series sketch that re-writes “Crunchy Frog” into a collection of disgusting cocktails such as the “The Special” (with a “twist of lemming”), “Mallard Fizz,” “Dog Turd & Tonic,” and the “Harlem Stinger,” which if the audio is to be believed — no photos or videos of the sketch exist — features Terry Gilliam in blackface (or at least doing a cringe-inducing minstrel show voice). There’s also a few dated Nixon jokes. (The Pythons usually avoided using topical references.) It’s good to remind ourselves that not everything Python did is worthy of uncritical praise. Someone in the group liked this clunker enough to want it in the show, and it wasn’t voted down.

By the time Drury Lane was released in June of 1974, the Pythons had returned from rainy, windswept location filming in Scotland with the independently-produced Monty Python and the Holy Grail, co-directed by Gilliam and Jones, in the can. Months of editing work and previewing were needed to whip it into shape, and after summer holidays, the Pythons would be getting down to work on their fourth and final series for the BBC (without the participation of their most visible member, John Cleese, who was already formulating his plans for Fawlty Towers).

And big things were afoot in the United States…

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Monty Python: The Albums (Part 2)

Prologue — The Holy Bee Discovers Monty Python

It must have been the spring of 1988…our family home was way out in the middle of nowhere, a rented farmhouse surrounded by thirteen acres of walnut trees. I was enduring a lengthy bus ride to and from the psychological threshing machine known as middle school. Due to our house’s isolated location, I spent the ages of 11 to 14 without cable. Just antenna-based stuff including the three big networks, a couple of regional UHF channels…and PBS. So I watched a little more public television than the average middle-schooler. In between all the nature shows and war documentaries would be an occasional short promo for something called Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I remember the promo being just a silly voice over a faux-Gilliam bit of cut-out, high-contrast photography where Jim Lehrer‘s head was replaced with Big Bird’s. I was a little intrigued, but didn’t yet go out of my way to try and catch the show. (The connection between Python and PBS will be explored in next month’s entry.) An older classmate would occasionally sing “I’m a lumberjack, and I’m okay/I sleep all night and I work all day,” but I never recall him saying where it came from, or singing any of the rest of it.

I had a little rabbit-eared TV in my bedroom. I used to stay up late to catch Saturday Night Live at 11:30 from under my covers. (It was the second season featuring the classic late 80s-early 90s cast of Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Jon Lovitz, etc.) One night before the show started, I got up and wandered out to fix my favorite late-night snack (a plus-sized bowl of pre-sweetened cereal), and I passed my dad in the living room, in front of the big console TV in his favorite TV-watching position (laying on the carpeted floor on his side, head propped up on his elbow). On the screen was one of the weirdest things I’d ever seen. An English-accented narrator was breathlessly hyping footage of what appeared to be a film trailer — someone was on a random beach in a fur coat, having a life-or-death struggle with a stuffed lion. Yes, the first bit of Python that ever passed before my eyes was their series 2, episode 10 sketch “Scott of the Sahara.” (I wouldn’t say Dad was a real Python fan, but he had a sophisticated sense of humor and was a great devourer of all things PBS. Also, TV options were limited.) I went back in my room, and after awhile, decided to switch over to PBS, just in time for “Fish Licence.” I was hooked from that moment on.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus went into my regular viewing rotation at that point. It was on Saturdays at 11, just after a Tom Baker episode of Doctor Who* and just before SNL. Right after Python, PBS would usually show the minutes-long astronomy show Jack Horkheimer: Star Hustler, informing viewers of any observable events going on in the cosmos that week. Its spacey, cheesy closing theme was always my signal to switch over to NBC just in time for the SNL cold open. When our family splurged on a new VCR, I took the old one and hooked it up to my little TV. I wish I could say I captured all 45 original episodes, but my local PBS station was pretty inconsistent, often repeating an episode within weeks of the first time I saw it (and never once dipping into the first series). But by the time we moved away from that farmhouse and back to cable-ready civilization, I had amassed most of series four, some of series three, and a few episodes of series two on a collection of slightly fuzzy VHS tapes that I watched over and over.

As far as Python audio went, my birthday in 1989 yielded me the double-CD compilation The Final Rip-Off, and under the Christmas tree that year were vinyl copies of Live At City Center and Contractual Obligation Album. More on all of those in Part 4. Pretty soon I was in high school in a bigger town, where Python was very much a known thing, and I was finally among my tribe (and I made a few converts with all the zeal of a missionary — thanks entirely to my painstakingly compiled mixtapes of Python audio, as PBS had stopped showing them by the early 1990s.)

And now on with our main discussion…

The group’s first film, And Now For Something Completely Different — a re-filmed collection of their best TV sketches intended to introduce the group to American audiences via “college cinemas” (again, those existed?) — came out in September of 1971 after languishing on the shelf for almost a year. Producer Victor Lownes had managed to shop it to Columbia Pictures…who put it out in Britain only! This flew in the face of the original intent and the Pythons were horrified that re-hashed material was being shown on their home turf. However, it actually did moderately well at the box office in a country where they already had a built-in market (despite some people, as predicted, carping about a bunch of material already seen on TV being presented as “something completely different”). The initial concept of being released exclusively to American college cinemas was dropped somewhere along the line. Columbia seemed to have no interest in releasing it in the U.S. 

In the summer of 1972, Nancy Lewis was the head publicist for Buddah Records, a New York label specializing in bubblegum pop and light R&B. Just a few years before, she had been living in London, and had been captivated by Monty Python’s Flying Circus on TV. When Tony Stratton-Smith came over to New York to meet with the head of Buddah Records, Neil Bogart, to secure a U.S. deal for Charisma artists, the eagle-eyed Lewis spotted Another Monty Python Record in the stack of albums he was carrying. She energetically advocated for the group, and Buddah Records agreed to put out the album (and at least one future album) in the States. (Eagle-eyed, but maybe not elephant-memoried — she always recalls seeing both Another and Monty Python’s Previous Record in the Stratton-Smith’s stack, but Previous hadn’t even been recorded yet.)

It was Neil Bogart who convinced Columbia Pictures to finally release And Now For Something Completely Different in the U.S that August, with Buddah Records helping to cover the cost of promotion as they released Another Monty Python Record at the same time. Prints of the film were shipped across the country…to radio stations, who were then responsible for arranging screenings. At times, tickets were literally given away.

The group as they appeared in And Now For Something Completely Different‘s “Dirty Fork” sketch (with the non-performing Gilliam photo-bombing on the right)

Not all that surprisingly, the film bombed, despite Buddah’s enthusiastic-if-misguided cross-promotion efforts. “Some idiot designed a poster with a happy snake with a funny hat on,” griped John Cleese. It’s not clear if the idiot in question worked for Columbia or Buddah, but the team made sure going forward that all graphics and visuals associated with the Pythons would come from the mind of Terry Gilliam, at least for the foreseeable future. (In all my research, I have not been able to find the image of the be-hatted snake that Cleese found so irritating.)

A Buddah-era ANFSCD poster, 1972, with a little hype for the album at the bottom

And Now For Something Completely Different was written off (for now), but the album…it was starting to get some attention from FM radio stations. “The albums never sold in enormous numbers, but they provided a wonderful base,” says Lewis. Large chunks of first-rate Python material began hitting the American airwaves, usually in the overnight hours in the big city markets. “That FM stoner crowd was quite important,” says Michael Palin. “U.S. television was very commercial and safe but with a lot of rock DJs, Python was exactly the sort of stuff they were looking for…WNEW in New York would play Python clips all the time.”

By this time, the Pythons had long finished producing their third series of Flying Circus, but it remained unaired (due to a crowded BBC schedule, and head office concern over some of the edgier content). They were gearing up to do an original 45-minute episode for German TV (their second), and decided it was time for another album.

On Monty Python’s Previous Record, original material had roughly equal time with material drawn from the TV show, this time from the third series which had finally started being broadcast at the time of the album’s recording. (One sketch, “Fish License,” they pulled from all the way back in the second series.) Once again, the Jones/Palin team were in the producer’s seat, but just as Terry Jones shepherded the the second album (much to his distress), Michael Palin stepped up and took point on this one, bringing in Andre Jacquemin.

Andre Jacquemin was a teenage apprentice working at a London studio under the supervision of an old-school recording engineer, Alan Bailey (whose claim to fame was engineering several Cliff Richard sessions and working for Radio Luxembourg). One day in 1971, on his way out to lunch, he fortuitously bumped into Michael Palin, who was shopping around for a studio to record some voiceovers. With Bailey being all booked up, Jacquemin took on the session himself — and deeply impressed Palin. “What Andre was doing with music and sound effects was incredible,” remembers Palin. The debacle of recording Another was probably pretty fresh in his mind. “I asked him if he wanted to help me make [the next] album. Thankfully, he says ‘Yes.’” 

“Mike explained what he needed and pointed to a three-foot high pile of scripts,” says Jacquemin. “He said ‘Just take those home and have a look at them, then you can tell us when you want us and what you want us to do.’ The only thing that kept going through my head was, ‘Oh God! These are all Cambridge and Oxford graduates…all I had was a swimming certificate and a bicycle proficiency test in terms of qualifications, so I thought ‘oh, crumbs! I’m in big trouble here…’ Anyway, I embraced it and told them I’d put together a budget and let them know.”

The album cover was a typical Gilliam flight of fancy, and the original inner sleeve advertised completely fictional albums supposedly also available from Charisma Records, such as Friday Night is Bath Night by J.P. Gumby, and Party Time! by Princess “Piano” Margaret. (Sadly, later pressings had an inner sleeve featuring actual Charisma products, and another good joke was ruined by the men in suits.) 

Included with the initial pressing was a small flexi-disc called “Teach Yourself Heath,” providing the record buyer with lessons on how to imitate the speech and mannerisms of Britain’s current Prime Minister. “Eric and I spent a day listening to Heath’s speeches,” says Palin. “At a certain point I went to sleep…I feel the record hasn’t done justice to the boredom and inanity of those party political speeches. If it is funny, thank Mr. Heath for that. It’s all him.”

Monty Python’s Previous Record 

Released: December 8, 1972 (U.K.); ? 1973 (U.S.)

Produced by Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Andre Jacquemin, and Alan Bailey

Track Listing:

Side One

1. Introduction

2. Are You Embarrassed Easily?

3. A Book at Bedtime

4. Dennis Moore (Part 1)

5. The Money Programme

6. The Money Song

7. Dennis Moore (Part 2)

8. Dennis Moore Theme Song (Part 1)

9. Australian Table Wines

10. Dennis Moore Theme Song (Part 2)

11. Argument Clinic

12. How To Do It

13. Dennis Moore Theme Song (Part 3)

14. Pepperpots (How To Put Your Budgie Down)

15. Personal Freedoms (Jean-Paul Sartre)

16. Dennis Moore Theme Song (Part 4)

17. Fish Licence

18. Eric the Half-a-Bee

19. Radio Quiz Game

20. Travel Agent

Side Two

1. A Massage from the Swedish Prime Minister (I)

2. Silly Noises

3. Anne Elk

4. The Yangtse Sketch

5. We Love the Yangtse

6. A Massage from the Swedish Prime Minister (II)

7. A Minute Passed

8. Eclipse of the Sun

9. Alistair Cooke

10. Wonderful World of Sound

11. Funerals at Prestatyn

12. A Massage from the Swedish Prime Minister (III)

13. A Fairy Tale (Happy Valley)

Beware starting this one with the volume too high. The listener is immediately jolted by the introduction on side one, which features Terry Jones screaming at the absolute top of his lungs “Not this record! Not this record! Not this record!” until the needle is pulled and we are lulled into a gentle attempt to get uptight British listeners over their innate embarrassment at certain words (“megaphone”) and sounds (which have to be heard to be appreciated, but they’re…rude.)

The well-known classics here are “Travel Agent” and “Argument Clinic,” but long-time fans will appreciate series three sketches such as “Anne Elk” (and her controversial theory about the brontosaurus), the Blue Peter parody “How To Do It” (“How to play the flute: blow here and move your fingers up and down there”), and the reappearance of Mr. Praline, who we last encountered trying to return a dead parrot to the pet shop. This time he’s applying for a license for his pet fish, Eric (a halibut). “Fish Licence” concludes with the only Python song to feature the deeply non-musical John Cleese singing a solo vocal part, “Eric the Half-a-Bee,” an album-only treat not included in the TV version of the sketch. It was never performed live, but you can always tell who’s a hardcore Python fan based on their deep love for this song. The running gag through side one is the adventures of Dennis Moore, a Robin Hood-style, 18th-century highwaymen who can’t quite get the hang of redistributing wealth. More precisely, it’s Dennis Moore’s theme song that gets constantly revised. (The running gag through side two is a “massage from the Swedish prime minister” — but it doesn’t vary. Each time it appears, it says the exact same thing. Very un-Pythonlike, but there’s an explanation.)

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Monty Python: The Albums (Part 1)

“We were convinced Python wouldn’t go in America.”  — Eric Idle

Variations on this statement have been uttered by all members of the Monty Python comedy team at one time or another, and it’s a statement to which I take patriotic exception. If that were true, if us stateside folks really were a bunch of provincial, close-minded xenophobic rubes who only wanted domestically-produced comedy on the level of The Three Stooges and Gilligan’s Island, then Python would have failed. (And by the way, Britain has their fair share of provincial, close-minded xenophobic rubes too.)

But they did not fail. They were — eventually — a resounding success. The Pythons are immortal because their material did work in the U.S. Unfair as it may seem, you don’t get multi-generation global approbation without breaking in America. No one outside the borders of the U.K. gives a tenth of a shit about British “superstars” like Cliff Richard (old) or Robbie Williams (relatively recent). Who? Exactly. (We might give Russell Brand a chance if he didn’t always look like he was soaking wet, or covered with a slick layer of shortening.)

I’ve written about Monty Python several times in these virtual pages, and I’ve always felt the need to start off with a little potted history on them. This time will be no different.

The Monty Python troupe consisted of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. All were products of either Cambridge or Oxford University, where — while pursuing professional degrees in things like law (Cleese) and medicine (Chapman) — they honed their peformance chops in traditional live theater, sketch revue shows, and after-hours cabaret. (The lone exception was the Minnesota-born Terry Gilliam, who was a typical overachiever — in his senior year of high school he was simultaneously class president, head cheerleader, and editor of the school paper. His subsequent years at Occidental College made him “honorary Oxford” in the group’s eyes.) But all of them abandoned traditional career paths as the lure of show business proved too strong to resist.

BBC-TV was going through an unusually experimental and indulgent phase in the mid to late 1960s. One of their flagship shows was the satirical Frost Report, considered a landmark of topical, cutting-edge humor. John Cleese was doubling as a writer and as part of its ensemble cast. The BBC took a shine to the tall, angular comedian, and almost casually offered him a show of his own which, after a couple of years and many twists and turns, became Monty Python’s Flying Circus (with Cleese declining headliner status — he wanted to be regarded solely as part of the team.) The hastily-assembled Python group came into the BBC’s headquarters in the spring of 1969 with the most hilariously uninformative pitch imaginable — they admitted they had no idea what the format of the show would be, or if there would be musical numbers, or guest stars, or…anything, really. They just offered a shrug and a collective sheepish grin. The result was they were offered “only” thirteen episodes at first, and told to get on with it. 

As Idle put it, “We didn’t know what we were doing, but we insisted on doing it.”

Early BBC photo session, 1969, missing Gilliam, whose role within the group hadn’t quite been decided by the BBC publicity department

The BBC were not as far out on a limb as it may have appeared. Although the Pythons were still all quite young at this point (the oldest, Cleese, turned 30 a few weeks after the show’s premiere), this was not their first rodeo. Except for Gilliam, their American animator and illustrator, they were all veterans of the Frost Report writers’ room. Moreover, they had all been writer-performers on their own TV shows already. Cleese and Chapman put together 1967’s sketch comedy show At Last the 1948 Show (for ITV, not the BBC) and Idle, Jones, and Palin created a surreally anarchic children’s show, Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-69) for Thames Television that had just as many adult fans as kids (distinguished solicitors and merchant bankers were said to have left work early to catch it each Thursday afternoon.) The fresh-off-the-boat Gilliam joined DNAYS as animator in its second series in 1968.

Did I say second “series”? Yes. As we all know, the Brits and the Yanks are two people separated by a common language. When they say “public school,” they mean “private school.” When we say “series,” we are referring to a TV show in its entirety. When they say “series,” they are referring to what we call a “season.” So Monty Python’s Flying Circus is divided into “Series 1” (13 episodes, 1969-70), “Series 2” (13 episodes, 1970), “Series 3” (13 episodes, 1972-73), and a truncated “Series 4” (6 episodes, 1974 — without Cleese, and with the title shortened to just Monty Python).

After a slow start, Monty Python’s Flying Circus gradually gained viewing numbers and was a critical hit in the U.K. by the end of its first series, and a popular hit by the end of its second. Could the brand be exported? The team themselves were skeptical, but knew they wanted to stretch their wings beyond the BBC.

The Pythons’ first shot at the American market was not their television show at all. It was a film (see below). It failed, confirming their suspicions.

Their second shot consisted of comedy albums. Those started getting people’s attention…

Yes, Python’s initial handful of American fans in the wild and woolly early 1970s thought of them as primarily purveyors of comedy albums, akin to the Firesign Theater and Cheech & Chong. It was actually vinyl LPs that got Monty Python’s trademark foot in the door of America — circulating through university dorm rooms and being played in the wee hours on progressive FM radio stations. Over the course of their lifespan as a full group (1969-83), Monty Python released ten albums, several of which are considered absolute masterpieces of original audio comedy, true companion pieces to their groundbreaking work in the television medium.

So with this series of essays, the Holy Bee hopes to put the development of those albums in the context of the group’s overall timeline and creative output…and explain how they helped in their American breakthrough.

Let’s start by asking why the Python team was so convinced their material would never fly in the United States.

Morecambe & Wise (U.K.)

It comes down to the supposed difference between “British humo[u]r” and “American humor.” What sets British humor apart from its trans-Atlantic counterpart that speaks the same language? The more I researched this question, searching through Quora, Reddit, and simply asking people, the less clear the distinction became. It’s often stated that British humor is distinguishable because it’s dryer, “smarter,” irony-based, darker, and so on. American humor is broader, more obvious, maybe a little gentler and more sentimental. But examples abound that none of these traits solely belong to one side, nor does breaking formula result in a smaller audience. And that’s not just a recent development. In America, the dry-as-a-bone Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart won a Grammy as far back as 1960 and sold by the truckload. The cerebral comedy team of Nichols and May had lines around the block when they hit Broadway the same year. A little later, American films like MASH and Harold and Maude were wickedly smart and incredibly dark, and had great success at the box office. On the other side of the spectrum, sappy, generic sitcoms, unimaginative “comedic” variety shows, and — God help us — the hideous sucking chest wound of British humor known as Benny Hill were all over British television for decades and watched by millions. The deeply moronic Carry On film series was a beloved British institution. American rednecks at the sports bar and British punters down the pub are a remarkably similar breed, and no one has a monopoly on a style of comedy.

Rowan & Martin (U.S.)

Some say most British humor comes off as “smarter.”

But Python’s intellectualism is surface-only. Take, for example, the Monty Python sketch known as “The All-England Summarize Proust Competition,” a game show-style televised contest to see which contestant could verbally condense French modernist Marcel Proust’s seven-volume philosophical novel A La Recherche du Temps Perdu in just fifteen seconds. Heady stuff…but, by their own admission, none of the Pythons had actually read Proust. They just knew him as a cool name to drop to sound smart. And lest we forget that the Pythons also excelled at lowbrow humor, the actual winner of the “All-England Summarize Proust Competition” was…“the girl with the biggest tits.” You don’t have to have graduated Oxford to laugh at the premise and the naughty punchline.

The Goodies, doing “The Funky Gibbon.” I’m embarrassed on their behalf

On the other hand, what happens when you eschew any level of smartness and go for pure silliness? Well, you get the Goodies — another British comedy team (Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, Graeme Garden) with identical backgrounds to the Pythons (Oxbridge educations followed by a comedy-writing apprenticeship at the BBC), and whose lifespan as a team was almost identical as well — but they dropped all pretensions of engaging their audience on an intellectual level…and their comedy suffered. Frankly, the Goodies often crossed the line from silly to flat-out stupid. And it was fake stupid (as opposed to Benny Hill, who at least came by his stupidity honestly). These were guys as smart as the Pythons, but deliberately dumbed themselves down. It backfired, and they ended up with no shelf life. (The Pythons have always been good friends with the Goodies, who were all incredibly talented individuals, and their creative paths have crossed several times on other projects. Also, RIP Tim Brooke-Taylor, co-creator of At Last the 1948 Show with Cleese and Chapman, and an early casualty of Covid-19 in April of 2020.)

So it seems that British humor is simultaneously smarter and sillier, referencing Proust, Sartre, and Bergson one moment, then making boob jokes the next. But this hybrid intellectual/silly/surreal blend — or at least its acknowledgement as the modern definition of “British humor” by Americans — may actually originate solely with Monty Python. It’s the reason the term “Pythonesque” is now in the Oxford English Dictionary. They were true originals, or at least the ones who put the pre-existing parts together for the first time.

The Pythons’ uniqueness led to their success, and ultimately proves that the gap between “British humor” and “American humor” is really no gap at all — Americans can do smart references, cutting irony, and dry sarcasm. And the Brits can do the broad, the formulaic, and the sentimental. In fact, both sides do all of those things an awful lot.

In the end, I think the perceived “gap” is explained by three very simple things. 

1) The British — now and forever, upper class to working class — love cross-dressing and believe it’s inherently hilarious. Some Like It Hot aside, Americans have always been a little conservative about playing with gender. (And speaking of class, Americans really don’t get Britain’s all-consuming obsession with class levels.)

2) The use of terminology, slang, and cultural references that would only be recognizable to someone living in the British Isles.

3) Most importantly — stubborn American resistance to the English accent. I personally know people who claim even the clearest, most precise “received pronunciation” English accent makes them throw up their hands and insist everything being said is incomprehensible. And any English accent of any region sounds off-puttingly stuffy and pretentiously “smart” to many American ears. We still seem to have an inferiority complex when comparing ourselves to our supposedly more sophisticated English cousins — and the accent triggers it. Many will shut their ears and not even try, thinking it’s somehow above them. (In comedy, at least. Historical costume dramas seem to get a free pass. The accent suddenly makes sense in that context. And notice I’m specifically referring to English accents here. Irish, Welsh, and Scottish accents provide their own special array of befuddlement for us.)

So…the first series of Flying Circus had concluded in January 1970, to critical plaudits and increasing ratings. The group was deep into writing and assembling material for the second series when the BBC decided there was a market for an audio recording of the highlights of the show so far. The easiest thing would have been to just make a vinyl release of edited audio from the actual episodes, perhaps with a little helpful narration (which was common practice for BBC Records), but the Pythons insisted on re-recording the material. The BBC, somewhat surprisingly, agreed.

Not long before the recording date, the Pythons were dismayed to discover that the recording was not to be made in the controlled confines of a proper recording studio with state-of-the-art stereophonic equipment, but to be made in a theater in front of a live audience — old radio show-style. 

Monty Python’s Flying Circus 

Released: November 6, 1970 (U.K. only)

Produced by Ian MacNaughton

Track Listing:

Side One

1. Flying Sheep

2. A Man with Three Buttocks

3. Crunchy Frog

4. Nudge Nudge

5. The Mouse Problem

6. Buying a Bed

7. Interesting People

8. Barber Shop

9. The Lumberjack Song

10. “It’s the Arts” Interview: Sir Edward Ross

Side Two

1. “It’s the Arts” Interview: Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson

2. Children’s Stories

3. The Visitors

4. Albatross

5. Mr. Hilter

6. The North Minehead By-Election

7. Me, Doctor

8. Pet Shop (Dead Parrot)

9. Self-Defence

“Classic” sketches — the ones every Python fan can recite by heart — include the gross-out perennial “Crunchy Frog,” everyone’s favorite innuendo-fest “Nudge Nudge,” “The Lumberjack Song,” “Self-Defence” (or, “How to defend yourself against someone carrying different kinds of fresh fruit”), and the mighty “Pet Shop (Dead Parrot).” 

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 2: Making Playlists

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

The “Spotify Chronicles” were/are cobbled together out of random music-based thoughts I shared with the Institute of Idle Time (see previous entry for more on those tasteless wretches) via instant messaging as I “worked” from home, or typed piecemeal into a constantly-open Google Doc late at night as I was drinking old-fashioneds and plugged into my earbuds…keep in mind, these are unvarnished opinions, and chunks of the following are literally copied-and-pasted out of IM discussions, with a few editorial tweaks to keep it semi-coherent…

So I’m doing a lot of listening and making a lot of playlists. I suppose I should start by giving you my definition of a playlist.

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A decades-themed “mixtape” on Spotify

To my mind, a playlist is dedicated to a single band or artist, and is a microcosm of that artist’s entire discography. Greatest hits, obviously, but also personal-favorite Deep Cuts, maybe a few live tracks, and some other odds & sods, like something that popped up on a movie soundtrack but nowhere else. This definition dates from a pre-streaming era when you had to boil your physical-media music collection down to make it portable — either onto blank cassettes, or blank CDs after a certain point in music-copying history.

One of the advantages of making playlists from streaming platforms is that there’s no time limit, which expands your options. On the other hand, I do remember enjoying the challenge of a time limit. An 80-minute CD-R or 90-minute cassette imposed boundaries to work within. It was all about maximizing space. I remember being appalled when WH used up fifteen minutes of a Hendrix compilation with the blues workout “Voodoo Child.” (“And I’d do it again,” he asserted when asked about it recently.) And if you ran out of space for a really good artist with a lengthy career? You did Volume 2, Volume 3…

Now let’s draw a distinction between “playlists” and “mixes” (which I will almost always refer to here as “mixtapes”). 

Playlists are a reference work, a song-based encyclopedia entry. Mixtapes are more like literature. They can be thematic, or mood-based. They take you on a journey. You can do a single artist mixtape, but they tend to be multi-artist. Mixtapes are finite, they are a finished work. Playlists can be endlessly tinkered with, revised, and updated, especially when you’re as neurotic about them as I am.

I use mixtape in the broadest possible sense, of course. The term obviously originated in the days of the cassette tape, but for over twenty years now, all of my “mixtapes” have been burned CDs or made online. (And muddying the waters a bit, streaming services generically call any list or mix you make a “playlist.”)

If you’re going analog, a 60-minute cassette, thirty minutes a side, are best for mixes. Mixtapes are often intended to be given to someone else, so you need to keep it short and tight. Don’t want to bore the person you’re trying to impress. You get a slightly better sound quality from a shorter tape, too, and they’re not as likely to break or get tangled. The 90-minute cassette was my standard workhorse for making artist playlists. 120-minute cassettes were available, too, but they were just too fragile and tended to warble a little. Some people swore by Maxell, I was a TDK man. Solid quality at a slightly lower price.

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Sure, you can swap mixtapes with your music-nerd buddies, but I’ve found that mixtapes are almost exclusively made for the object of your affection. This is certainly not an original observation.

My wife lamented awhile back that I made her four mixtapes over the first year we were dating, and then no more. My sister-in-law chimed in said the identical scenario went down between her and my wife’s brother. Mixtape-making for your significant other usually ceases right when cohabitation begins. Mixtapes are supposed to inspire them to think about you when you’re not around. Once you’re snoring next to them on a nightly basis, and they can hear your frankly alarming bathroom noises on the other side of the door, mixtapes seem a tad superfluous. (And new cars don’t even have CD players!)

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R.I.P.

The last time I did something similar to this Spotify project was before streaming became a thing. I spent a summer about ten years ago making iPod playlists. I had ripped my thousand or so CDs into mp3s, and supplemented my collection by flying the BitTorrent Jolly Roger. (I am a reformed man, and now duly pay for my streaming services.)

But iTunes (sorry, “Apple Music”) has been gleefully pissing in the Cheerios of old-school music fans for a number of years now. Every iTunes update actually making the interface objectively worse? Good move, Apple. Blithely “discontinuing” their 160-gig, physical-click wheel iPods? Screw you, Apple. Way to make me hate you forever. So I dumped those shallow Cupertino grassfuckers and started giving my money to the humble Swedes of Spotify Premium. 

So the Spotify Playlists of the 2020 Quarantine were preceded by the 2010 iPod Playlists of the BitTorrent Boom…there was another cycle of making “playlists” ten years before that — right when CD burners became an affordable option — when I was happily listening through my CD collection on a battery-sucking Discman with sponge-covered headphones, and filling Case Logic carrying cases with artist-themed CD-Rs made on my PC. 

(Hear that, Apple? On my PC! And who really preferred super-douchey toolbag Justin Long to nice, earnest John Hodgman in those commercials?) 

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Not coincidentally, I switched to Spotify the day after Tom Petty died, and I immediately poured my grief into a Petty playlist. I added other playlists over the next couple of years when the mood struck me or I was bored at work. I put together some obvious favorites (Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Dylan), and some good-but-not-exactly-favorites because that’s what interested me that day (Queen, Steve Earle, a Faces/Small Faces mashup that I’m pretty damn proud of). 

Now I’ve decided to put my socially-distant, non-work time (which is copious) to use filling in the gaps in my Favorite Artists playlists. No Springsteen? There is now! Green Day, which everyone seems to think I like way more than I actually do? They’re on the to-do list. Johnny Cash and Prince are going to be daunting, but I haven’t worn pants since St. Patrick’s Day, so I might as well plunge in. Next week, maybe. Or in two or three weeks. Time has lost a lot of meaning.

What’s my method? I’m so glad you asked.  Continue reading

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The First Shared Cinematic Universe: Universal Monster Movies (Part 4)

The Budget Sequels

MV5BZGMxODA2NGEtOTI1MS00Y2QwLThhODYtOWUwZjU3NWI1OGEyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjc1NTYyMjg@._V1_The Ghost of Frankenstein (March 1942) and Chaney’s performance marked the transition of Frankenstein’s Monster from Karloff’s confused, hurt, and occasionally dangerous creature seeking some kind of human connection to the slow, clumsy, blank-faced killing machine he would remain in many people’s imaginations from then on. (People who see Karloff in the first two Frankenstein films are often surprised by how lithe and expressive the Monster was initially.)

Now that Universal had Chaney, Tom Tyler was given his walking papers (shuffling papers?) after a single performance as the Mummy. Lon was duly wrapped up into his least-favorite character and staggered through increasingly bored performances in The Mummy’s Tomb (October 1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (July 1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (December 1944). On-set sources say he had a flask of gin wrapped into his mummy bandages by the costume department, with the tip of a drinking tube near his collarbone. If nothing else, he was a creative engineer of ways to get his daily intake. He did create the Mummy’s well-known gait, based on the damage the monster sustained by Tyler’s incarnation in Hand…left arm cradled against his chest, left leg dragging.

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Chaney’s face says it all. He hated doing his Mummies.

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And who better to play Count Dracula than the lumpy, pot-bellied, double-chinned Lon Chaney? Universal’s commitment to putting Chaney into all of its monster roles reached its ludicrous limit when the hilariously miscast Chaney donned the cape and fangs in Son of Dracula (November 1943). The title is a head-scratcher — most of the time, the movie seems to think that the leading character is the Count himself. (Anyone suggesting the 61-year-old Lugosi should reprise his role would have been laughed out the room, but Chaney is even more risible.)

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Really?

What’s frustrating is that this had the potential to be a pretty good B-level horror flick. It’s based on an original story by Wolf Man scribe Curt Siodmak, and its setting among the old plantation houses of Tennessee gave it an eerie, swampy, Southern Gothic atmosphere. It boasted the first on-screen bat-to-man transformation. Long-suffering Evelyn Ankers gamely returned for a third go-round as Chaney’s on- and off-screen victim. 

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Well over a year before Son of Dracula splattered onto the screen, Curt Siodmak off-handedly mentioned a funny idea for a title to producer/director George Waggner …Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man. Waggner took him seriously…

“Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man”

Lon Chaney was Universal’s in-house horror star, and had already played both Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man. Was it possible he could play both at the same time? He insisted he was up to the challenge. Director Roy William Neill, a veteran of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone, considered the possibility. With a liberal use of doubles and a little trick photography, he decided it could be done. But it would inflate the budget, and Chaney’s reliability was questionable. Universal nixed the idea.

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If nothing else, it made for a great poster

The next option was someone who was a big name in horror, and whose salary would not break the bank. To Universal, that could only mean one thing — get Bela. This would actually neatly tie in with the end of Ghost of Frankenstein, where the Monster received Ygor’s brain. It was a logical development that he should speak with Ygor’s voice. (Not that Universal ever cared a fig for continuity, it would just be a happy coincidence.) Would Lugosi take on the role of the Monster, that he had so famously turned down over a decade before? Lugosi was in no position to turn down high-profile work. He would soon turn 60 and had recently begun self-administering morphine to ease the pain caused by sciatica. So Bela subjected himself to the rigors of Jack Pierce’s Monster make-up at long last. (“For the money,” confirmed his wife later.)

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Lugosi’s Monster side-eyes a nervous-looking Chaney

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was released in March 1943. The first half is all Lon Chaney as Larry Talbot, resurrected by grave-robbers working under a full moon, and desperate to find a final cure for his lycanthropy, or at least the sweet relief of a permanent death. He believes the secret is to be found in the journals of Dr. Frankenstein (?!), and sets off to find the doctor, or his notes. For some reason, after perishing in a laboratory fire in his previous appearance, the Monster is found by Talbot frozen in a block of ice under the ruins of Castle Frankenstein. The Monster (mostly blind and speaking in Ygor’s voice in the original script) is run-down and of little help.

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Ilona Massey takes over the role of Elsa Frankenstein from Evelyn Ankers, so for anyone still desperately clinging to the notion that the name “Frankenstein” should never be applied to his Monster, I guess this is the Frankenstein Larry Talbot meets. (Lionel Atwill appears as the local mayor.) In due course, Talbot runs across a scientist who decides to — you guessed it — restore the Monster to full strength. And he decides to do it on the night of a full moon. Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster do indeed duke it out, before being swept away by floodwaters released by vengeful, torch-bearing villagers.

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For anyone watching closely, the Monster is played by stuntmen Eddie Parker and Gil Perkins almost as much as by Lugosi, who simply wasn’t up to the rigors of the more physical aspects of the role. Also, someone made the executive decision — once the movie had been entirely shot — that the Monster speaking in Ygor’s gruff, thickly-accented voice just didn’t work, and had all of his dialogue cut out (very clumsily in places.) Along with it went any reference to the Monster’s semi-blindness, and his explanation for how he ended up in ice. As the film now plays, there’s no reason for Lugosi to always have his arms held stiffly straight out in front of him, which became essential to all bad Monster imitations forever into the future.  Continue reading

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The First Shared Cinematic Universe: Universal Monster Movies (Part 3)

Poe Folks (Karloff & Lugosi)

As soon as Boris Karloff and his Frankenstein’s Monster appeared on the scene, Bela Lugosi’s stock dropped with studio executives, if not necessarily audiences. Film historians have been unable to pin down exactly why. There was certainly room for more than one horror star. Lugosi could be stand-offish but was not difficult to work with — quite the opposite, in fact. Some blame his inability to adapt his old-fashioned, theatrical acting style to more modern cinema standards, but one viewing of Son of Frankenstein should be enough to scotch that theory. Maybe it was his proud refusal to tone down the accent. Could it be interwar xenophobia against someone from eastern Europe? Impossible to say for sure. All that can be definitively said is that Universal (and other studios, but Universal especially) seemed to go out of their way to treat Lugosi shabbily. 

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Bela and Boris toast each other in a publicity photo from their first flush of fame, 1932. 

In 1934, Lugosi’s name could still draw horror fans, and it was known he worked cheap. And Universal had just renewed Karloff’s contract. The inevitable result was the teaming of the two. Karloff and Lugosi appeared together in five Universal films from 1934 to 1940, one of which was part of the Frankenstein series, two of which were more science fiction than horror, and two of which were very, very loose adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories. No matter the part, Karloff always received top billing and lots more money.

The first of these, The Black Cat (May 1934), is probably the most interesting. Lugosi is a traumatized war veteran just released from a Siberian prison and bent on avenging himself against the man (Karloff) who betrayed his wartime companions to the enemy, and stole away Lugosi’s wife and young daughter. Karloff is now an Aleister Crowley-like leader of a Satanic cult and is married to Lugosi’s daughter (the wife having been dispatched as a cult sacrifice long ago). After Karloff callously offs the daughter as well, Lugosi has his revenge, skinning Karloff alive, and then sacrificing himself so the Handsome Young Couple™ who had gotten themselves tangled up in this mess can escape. What does this have to do with the Poe short story “The Black Cat”? Nothing whatsoever, except that Lugosi’s character has a cat phobia, and this comes into play at one crucial point in the story.

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Who has the more piercing stare? The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat may be one of the darkest, most twisted films of the 1930s, and merits a mention here even if it has nothing to do with the classic Universal monsters. (And it has one of the most classic lines from any Universal horror move. When the goings-on are dismissed by the young hero as “superstitious baloney,” Lugosi remarks ominously “Superstitious…perhaps. Baloney…perhaps not.”)

The follow-up, The Raven (July 1935), also has nothing to do with the first shared universe, but has a little more to do with Poe than its predecessor. Lugosi has the madman part here, playing a deeply disturbed plastic surgeon with a Poe fixation, to the point that he has a stuffed raven on his desk. Oh, and he’s also replicated the pit and its bladed pendulum in an extensive torture chamber in his basement. When a Handsome Young Couple™ (and her father) enter his web, terror ensues. Karloff is the B-story — a murderer on the run who asks Lugosi to alter his appearance. Lugosi does — horribly disfiguring the criminal, promising to change it back only after he does his bidding.

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Lugosi disfigures Karloff, The Raven (1935)

Was there a long-running Karloff/Lugosi feud or rivalry as has long been speculated? Certainly not on Boris’ part, but because he came out on top, financially and in the public perception, he could afford to be magnanimous. Lugosi’s last two wives insisted that Lugosi really did not much like Karloff, and did give voice to jealousy and resentment in regard to his “rival” on occasion. As portrayed by Martin Landau in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), the elderly Lugosi would go into a profanity-laced rage at the mere mention of Karloff’s name. Bela’s son was gracious enough to praise Landau’s Oscar-winning performance, but stated that it was a work of fiction. The real Lugosi never used bad language, and never spoke ill of Karloff to anyone beyond private moments with his spouses. During the course of the five films they made together for Universal (plus two for RKO, and several self-parodying radio spots and publicity appearances), no one remembered a cross word between the two. Their relationship was always cordial and professional, although they did not socialize or build a friendship once they clocked out from the day’s work.

A Bride and a Daughter

Yes, Karloff got top billing and a truckload of money for a pretty small part in The Raven. Universal felt justified because Karloff was hot off Bride of Frankenstein — triumphantly revising the role that made him a star in a film that many, then and now, say surpasses the original. 

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Updated make-up for the Monster — singed hair and scarred cheek after surviving a fire at the end of the original film.

As promised, James Whale got free rein to make the film however he wanted. He abandoned the somber tone of the original, and replaced it with a more personal style — dark comedy, with lots of symbolism, and moments of high camp. Henry Frankenstein has learned his lesson and wants nothing more to do with reanimating dead bodies. The problem is, his creation is still running amok. Knowing this, an old associate of Henry’s, the quite insane Dr. Pretorius, forces Henry to continue his experiments and make his Monster a mate. 

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“A new world of gods and monsters” — Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) admire their handiwork.

Karloff once again plays the Monster with a pure simplicity that can switch to fearsome menace. He has even learned to speak a few words (a development the actor fiercely opposed.) Colin Clive as Frankenstein is tense and edgy as before. But the movie-stealer is Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius. The flamboyantly gay Thesiger was an old theatrical crony of Whale’s, and had appeared as one of the very odd inhabitants of Whale’s Old Dark House, which struck a similar tone of suspenseful dread combined with gallows humor. (Thesiger was also a master needlepointer, and referred to himself as the “Stitchin’ Bitch.”) Dwight Frye makes a welcome return as Pretorius’ grave-robbing lackey, Karl.

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The title plays on the fact that many people were already incorrectly applying the name of the doctor to his creation. (The title can be taken at face value — Henry Frankenstein does get married in the film. Or it can indicate possession, that he’s the creator of the Monster’s mate, as in the “plays of Shakespeare.”) The Monster’s Bride herself is played by bohemian free spirit and former dancer and cabaret performer Elsa Lanchester, who appears as the iconic character only for a few moments at the end, and also plays a dual role as Mary Shelley in the film’s prologue. The Bride’s make-up is another Jack Pierce creation that has lived on in popular culture, and Lanchester said she based the Bride’s jerky movements and hostile hissing on the swans in Regent’s Park. Continue reading

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The First Shared Cinematic Universe: Universal Monster Movies (Part 2)

Frankenstein

Mary-Shelley-171194034x-56aa23a43df78cf772ac879dMary Shelley (1797-1851) was the unconventional offspring of an unconventional couple: early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and radical anarchist William Godwin. At 16, young Mary ran off with married Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Over the next several years, the Shelleys (who married after the fortuitous suicide of Shelley’s abandoned first wife in 1816), along with Mary Shelley’s step-sister Claire Claremont, and Percy Shelley’s friend and fellow poet Lord Byron made up an odd quartet, rambling around Europe, blowing through their ample inheritances, reading, writing, and philosophizing. Speculation about their free-love romantic couplings in various combinations can (and does) fill a book.

The idea for Frankenstein came to Shelley when they were staying at Byron’s rented villa in Geneva, Switzerland in the summer of 1816. The well-known tale goes that Byron challenged all of his overly-intellectual guests to step down from the lofty heights of poetry and philosophy and write a good old-fashioned ghost story. From the germ of an idea about an obsessed young man who discovers the secret of bringing life to the dead, Shelley worked through that autumn and into the next year, creating a work of heavy philosophy cut through with a few streaks of very effective Gothic horror. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published in 1818 to a mixed critical reception. 

Modern readers may be turned off by the interminable philosophical musings about the nature and purpose of existence, and by the fact that the Monster speaks…eloquently and at great length, sounding like John Milton. The Monster’s creator, Victor Frankenstein, is not a “doctor” but a young chemistry student at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany. The Monster is brought to life not in a massive, electrified laboratory, but in Victor’s student apartment (and Shelley is pretty damn vague on the details of the process). But lots of stuff that found its way into the movies over a century later is right there in the pages. Frankenstein’s obsession bordering on madness, hunting through the “damps of the grave…the dissecting room and the slaughter-house” to gather the parts needed for his experiment is one of the best sequences of the book. And when the Monster finally comes to life, Shelley’s description of his form is eerily familiar: “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing…his watery eyes, his shriveled complexion, his straight black lips.” There’s even a sequence late in the book where Victor creates a “bride” for the Monster, but he never brings her to life.

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Frontispiece to the 1831 edition of the novel

A stage adaptation of Frankenstein hit the boards as early as 1823, and Shelley’s tale continued to be part of popular lore through the 19th century. A silent film version was produced by Thomas Edison in 1910. Hamilton Deane, who mounted the first stage version of Dracula in 1924, commissioned playwright Peggy Webling to adapt Frankenstein as a follow-up in 1927. Though not as successful as Dracula (Webling’s play never made it to Broadway), Universal was inspired to follow the same pattern, and announced Frankenstein as its next horror property to hopefully capitalize on the success of Dracula. 

Writer-director Robert Florey had signed for a one-picture deal with Universal, and jumped on the Frankenstein project. (Florey had recently directed the Marx Brothers’ film debut, The Cocoanuts, for Paramount, and as he watched the Brothers’ performances he kept asking his assistant “This is supposed to be funny?” Florey was just not a comedy guy.) Working with writer Garrett Fort, Florey stripped Shelley’s overstuffed tale down to its bare essence, made multiple changes, and gave the story a solid and fast-moving structure. His work pleased Universal enough that he was assigned to be the film’s director. Bela Lugosi was set to be the Monster, much to his displeasure (see previous entry). Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye were invited back, cast in roles similar to their Dracula parts. Waterloo Bridge’s Mae Clark was assigned the role of Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth. And Universal hoped rising star Leslie Howard would be the doctor (an official offer had yet to be made).

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Spring 1931 — A one-off illustration from Universal’s exhibitor’s catalog, hyping films in currently in pre-production. Some were never made at all, some changed drastically.

In June 1931, Florey shot a 20-minute test reel of Lugosi, Van Sloan, Frye, and a few stand-ins on the still-standing Castle Dracula set. Part of the purpose was to see how the heavy Monster make-up would appear on film.

And it appeared totally ridiculous.

The first make-up design for Frankenstein’s Monster was supposedly (the footage has disappeared) based on the German silent film The Golem, another tale about bringing life to dead material. Edward Van Sloan said Lugosi “looked like something out of Babes in Toyland.” Lugosi himself compared his look to a “scarecrow.” The most misguided element was described as a ridiculously wide, shaggy wig, as broad as Lugosi’s shoulders (think Roseanne Roseannadanna). Junior Laemmle reportedly burst out laughing when he screened the footage.

Not long after, James Whale decided he wanted Frankenstein. Universal wanted a happy James Whale. Florey was unceremoniously dumped. Nor did Whale want Leslie Howard as Dr. Frankenstein. He insisted upon having his intense leading man from Journey’s End, Colin Clive. The studio acquiesced, and Clive was flown in from London. (Studio gossip maintained that the bisexual Clive was Whale’s lover. And Leslie Howard did indeed go on to stardom, most notably as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.) Nor was Whale happy with Bela Lugosi. For the Monster, he wanted one of Universal’s most notable character actors, Boris Karloff.

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Colin Clive

Keep in mind, Lugosi never wanted the part in the first place, and it’s hard to blame him. Florey’s first-draft script gave the Monster no nuance or pathos, he was presented as merely a mindless killing machine (a persona he would return to later in the series.) And the unintentionally funny test reel didn’t help. But despite his insistence over the years that he turned down the role, in all likelihood Lugosi was replaced with Karloff at Whale’s insistence. (In Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration, film historian Gregory Mank credibly maintains that the super-professional Lugosi would have done the part in spite of his misgivings had the decision not been taken out of his hands.)

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Whale and crew began filming Frankenstein on August 24, 1931, while southern California was in the grip of a sizzling heat wave. Boris Karloff labored mightily under the weight of his costume and (brilliantly re-designed) make-up as the sun pounded down on the “Little Europe” portion of the Universal backlot. Interior shooting offered no relief, as the bright lights illuminating the sealed-off sound stages often pushed temperatures toward 115°. Universal’s largest stage, Stage 12, was used for the towering laboratory set. Kenneth Strickfaden designed the lab’s iconic electrical equipment, sparking and buzzing their way into film history. Whale drove his sweaty cast mercilessly. A bucket was provided in the corner of the set for urinary relief. One grueling 25-hour shooting day (September 28-29) as Whale struggled to stay on schedule may have planted a seed in the exhausted Karloff’s head which resulted in him becoming a founding member of the Screen Actors’ Guild a few years later. 

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But Jimmy was getting results. Despite his horrific visage, Karloff’s Monster was ultimately a figure to be pitied. In a tremendous job of physical acting, Karloff conveys the Monster’s confused suffering quite convincingly. In his words, he played the Monster “as though Man had been deserted by his God.” Colin Clive, a neurotic, blackout alcoholic prone to fits of nervous hysteria in real life, is riveting as Henry (no longer “Victor”) Frankenstein. Clive raves with insanity gleaming in his eyes during the moment of creation, and later evinces a broken shell of a man as he comes to his senses and realizes what he has wrought. Edward Van Sloan is authoritative as Henry’s mentor, Dr. Waldman, and Dwight Frye adds another unhinged eccentric to his resume. Much like Lugosi did with Dracula, here Frye creates the very template of the crazed, hunchbacked lab assistant with his portrayal of “Fritz” (no, not “Igor” just yet) that would be imitated for decades to come.

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The Monster is tormented by Fritz (Dwight Frye)

Filming wrapped on October 3, and Frankenstein was released in December 1931. It boasted a full-length score by Berhnaud Kaun, one of the first Universal releases to have that distinction. Despite a prologue featuring Van Sloan warning the audience of the terror to come, Frankenstein was considered even more shockingly horrific than Dracula. Sequences that were considered too shocking were snipped out after the film’s initial run — the Monster throwing a little girl into a lake and (accidentally) drowning her, and Clive’s shouted, blasphemous comparison of himself to God would be missing from the film until its video release far in the future.  Continue reading

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The First Shared Cinematic Universe: Universal Monster Movies (Part 1)

The Dark Universe

The massive success of Disney’s “Marvel Cinematic Universe” over the last decade has sent at least two other studios scrambling to emulate what seems to be a license to print money. They thought it would be easy. Simply utilize pre-established characters — to which they already owned the rights — in a series of interconnected, crowd-pleasing action movies with A-list stars. Well, Warner Brothers soon discovered it’s a lot trickier than it seems. Warner Brothers owns Marvel’s big comic book rival, DC, but their attempt to spin Batman, Superman, Aquaman and the like into their own cash cow has had its stumbles. Poor scripts, lack of a consistent point-of-view, and just plain clunky filmmaking have kept Warners’ “DCEU” series firmly in the shadow of the MCU. Oh, they make money, but they just don’t delight people the way the Marvel movies do. Determined to keep trying until they get it right, Warners is seven films deep as of this writing, with five more in the pipeline. 

They fared better than Universal.

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Universal logo, 1927-36

It occurred to Universal that they were sitting on a bunch of characters whose fame, or at least recognizability, was equal to the comic book heroes and villains of Marvel and DC: their classic stable of monsters from the 1930s, when Universal invented the American horror movie, and Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster ruled the cinema screens.

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It seemed like a stroke of genius. No one really watches those movies anymore, except pop-culture bloggers and elderly cinephile cranks (the sort of people who complain about modern movies, often with enthusiastic use of the caps lock, in their five-star Amazon review of something like The Invisible Man’s Revenge — “so much better than the DRECK they put out these days!!!!”) But the names and visages of their monster characters are deeply imprinted in the popular consciousness. If you ask someone to draw a picture of Frankenstein’s Monster, they will inevitably render a likeness of the square-headed creature with bolts in its neck, as designed for the 1931 film. Ask that same person if they’ve actually seen the film, and they will likely say no. So with most people remembering the monsters, but few remembering the films themselves, the writers and directors of the potential new movies had a pretty big sandbox to play in, with pre-tested characters to sweeten the deal. 

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The Dark Universe was born.

It would kick off with The Mummy in the summer of 2017, starring Tom Cruise as the Rugged Hero combating a female mummy (Sofia Butella), occasionally aided by Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll, portrayed here as a member of the top-secret monster-killing organization “Prodigium,” and only occasionally turning into Mr. Hyde. Following The Mummy would be The Bride of Frankenstein (bypassing the introduction of the Monster — everyone knows his origin story anyway), and after that would be Johnny Depp as The Invisible Man. And that was just the beginning. Dr. Jekyll and Prodigium would be the linking device between all the films, a la Marvel’s Nick Fury. 

Then The Mummy came out — and was howlingly bad. The action was incoherent, themummy_ver3 smaller horror elements were laughable, and the characters were cardboard cut-outs existing mostly to spout paragraphs of expository dialogue. It was the cinematic equivalent of a dumpster fire, and barely broke even at the domestic box office. It skulks around at a 16% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

This is not what franchises are built upon.

Project co-runners Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan dropped everything and backed away, hands up. The Bride of Frankenstein has been placed on indefinite hiatus. The now Depp-less Invisible Man was quickly rewritten to focus on the female victim (Elisabeth Moss) and is on track for a March 2020 release, but has severed all ties to the Dark Universe. (Dark Universe? What Dark Universe?) The office on the Universal lot dedicated to the project was abandoned last year, its potted plants re-distributed, and framed posters of the old films taken off the walls where they had just been placed the year before.

The Dark Universe died.

To be fair, Universal didn’t do it particularly well the first time around, either, but at least they got more than one film into their world-building. Decades before the concept of a “shared cinematic universe” was even in the cultural vocabulary, one 1943 film — Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man — established the two towering icons of horror as existing together, and the first shared universe was born. Two more sequels (House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula) ran with the concept, but by then Universal was not interested in giving their horror films the time, money, and talent they had lavished on the classier 1930s films. The two Houses were B-grade sausage-factory product.

We will examine the dwindling quality of the original series in good time. For now, let’s begin at the beginning. It’ll be the usual Holy Bee mash-up of things you know (“Frankenstein” is the name of the doctor, not the monster), things you maybe don’t know (early sound pictures did not have scores because filmmakers feared the audience would be confused about where all the music was coming from if no orchestra was visible on screen.) And parenthetical asides. So many parenthetical asides. 

The Birth of Universal Horror

Carl-Laemmle_mainIn 1905, German-Jewish immigrant Carl Laemmle was a bored clothing store manager in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. On a trip to Chicago, he noticed lines around the block to experience the “nickelodeon” — a primitive movie theater showing a variety of short films, or offering single-viewer Kinetoscope machines. Inspired, Laemmle decided this would be the new direction of his life, and in less than five years he and several partners had founded Independent Moving Picture Company (IMP) of New York. In 1912, he moved operations to California, and turned IMP into Universal Pictures.

Setting up shop on 230 acres of former ranch property in the San Fernando Valley he dubbed “Universal City,” Laemmle created the first entirely self-contained film production facility. By the early 1920s, Laemmle had bought out all of his partners and had sole control of the studio. But “Uncle Carl” may have overreached himself. As his nickname indicated, shameless nepotism was rampant at the studio. (“Uncle Carl Laemmle/Has a very large faemmle” ran one bit of Ogden Nash doggerel.) Countless cousins, nieces, nephews, and in-laws were on the payroll, many doing nothing but occupying studio bungalows. The other issue causing problems for Universal was the fact they did not own their own chain of theaters like most other major studios did. Universal was forced to rely on independent exhibitors, which ate into profits. By the beginning of the Great Depression, the studio was in deep financial trouble. 

Then a few things happened to stave off disaster. Uncle Carl had retired and turned overimage-w240 control of the studio to his son, Carl Jr., in 1928. Junior Laemmle demonstrated more enthusiasm than administration skill, but he had a good instinct for stories that would work well on film. One of the first productions he oversaw was the anti-war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which was a huge success both financially and artistically, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director (Lewis Milestone). The cinematographer, Karl Freund, was a veteran of post-war German Expressionism and first genius of the field. Junior also had the inkling of an idea that had been rattling around his head for a couple of years — can a film be made that combined a literary pedigree with the ability to sustain a mood of tension and terror all the way through? It wasn’t necessarily an original idea. Universal itself had already (mostly) achieved that alchemy with 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera. 

Straitlaced America struggled to get its own take on the horror genre off the ground. Cosmopolitan European filmmakers had been more daring, thrilling audiences with creepy fare such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and the vampire tale Nosferatu (1922). It was assumed by conservative American studio heads and theater owners that those sorts of horrific tales would be at the mercy of local film censor boards, be bad for public morals, and cause more controversy than they were worth. But they ignored evidence right before their eyes. A  1920 adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring John Barrymore definitely had some horror elements, and it made truckloads of money. People flocked to see Universal’s own The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) not for the melodramatic Gothic romance that it was, but for the hideously grotesque make-up that actor Lon Chaney devised for his version of the hunchback.

By 1925, American audiences seemed ready for a true horror movie. Universal, at that time still under the guidance of Uncle Carl, gave it to them.

The Phantom and Lon

Uncle Carl bought the rights to the 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux directly from the author on a trip to Paris in 1922, with a plan to turn it into a vehicle for Universal’s favorite specialist in the grotesque, Lon Chaney. Laemmle spared no expense, building a massive recreation of the Paris Opera House interior inside Universal’s Stage 28, along with the Phantom’s lair among the labyrinthine tunnels and sewers underneath. Early Technicolor was used in a few key sequences, such as when the Phantom appears as “Red Death” at the masquerade ball.

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It was a troubled production, with extensive re-shoots and re-edits, but the final product that went into general release in November 1925 left an indelible impression on audiences, almost entirely due to Lon Chaney’s horrific appearance. Continue reading

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A History of Santa Claus

This piece is basically a transcription of a lecture I’ve frequently delivered to my social studies classes on the day before winter break since about 2002.

I got hooked on Santa lore when I saw an A&E Biography on St. Nicholas in 1994. I wrote a paper on him in college a few years later, and saved all my notes. As a teacher, I spun it into a class presentation to have something fun to do on the last day before winter break when no one wants to do any real work. (I can justify it in the educational world of academic standards by calling it a lesson on “cultural diffusion.”)

Nowadays, there’s not much here that can’t be found on the Santa Claus or St. Nicholas Wikipedia pages, but in the absence of anything else to post this time of year with a suitable holiday feel, I thought I would send this artifact from my bottom drawer into the ether of internet posterity.

How did this…

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Become this?

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Here’s what I would say to the students:

“It’s not too much of a stretch to figure out that the term ‘holiday’ comes from ‘holy day.’ Days set aside for the veneration of religious figures have been a facet of human existence as far back as the historical record can peer (and presumably into the mists of prehistory). When the human species gradually abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle around ten thousand years ago, an existence based on animal husbandry and cultivation of planted crops allowed for some downtime in the cold season between harvest and planting. The crops had been gathered and stored in granaries, and the animals earmarked for slaughter were salted away or consumed before they spoiled, frequently in observance of one of these holy days. Be it celebrating primitive pagan nature gods or the Christian saints of a later era, any excuse to retire the yoke and hoe for a day (or twelve) of feasting was enthusiastically seized.

Winter and summer solstices were considered very important, the winter solstice particularly so. When you lived and died based on what you could wrest from the soil, noting that the days were gradually getting longer and warmer again was cause for rejoicing.

The Romans had a calendar with months we would (mostly) recognize since the earliest days of the old Roman Republic (500s BCE). Their winter solstice (‘bruma’) date was December 25.

Saturnalia was a pre-solstice, multi-day Roman festival that traditionally ran from December 17 to December 23. It was definitely a carnival atmosphere, similar to Mardis Gras in modern-day New Orleans, but the characteristic that’s noteworthy for our purposes was the tradition of gift-giving.

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Saturnalia

Many Romans of the later period of the Empire (300s CE) worshipped a sun god called Sol Invictus (‘Invincible Sun’). A Roman codex made by an engraver named Filocalus in 354, and copied and re-copied many times over the next few centuries (the original was lost), is the source of a lot of our knowledge about Roman institutions of the third and fourth centuries. Essentially a kind of almanac/encyclopedia, it included a calendar of important dates. The day celebrating this particular sun-god, ‘Dies Natalis Solis Invictus,’ is listed as December 25.

Also on December 25, Filocalus noted the ‘birth of Christ in Bethlehem, Judea,’ the first surviving reference to this event happening on that date. Certainly no such date ever appeared in the New Testament, but there are many biblical passages linking Jesus to the sun (‘the light of the world’ according to John, etc.), and there was also symbolic importance attached to his conception being connected to the vernal equinox (beginning of spring.) So the date caught on relatively quickly, being mentioned in a sermon by St. Augustine as soon as the early 400s. It was regularly celebrated on that date as the feast of ‘Christ’s Mass’ by the 800s. Modern and ancient theologians both agree that December 25 is almost certainly not the birthdate of the historical Jesus, but acknowledged that metaphoric symbolism superseded a completely blank historical record. The gospels were not intended to be historical documents, but historians have gleaned what they could from context, passing references, and geographical details buried in what were explicitly created as religious dogma.

As Christianity gained more of a foothold in western Europe, missionaries and other early supporters of the new religion eased various local population’s transition away from paganism by gradually replacing pagan festival days with days venerating Christian figures. They kept the same dates, and a lot of the same traditions. As long as the celebration was held in the name of the newly-ascendant monotheistic religion, everyone seemed happy. The feast of Christ’s Mass incorporated many elements of the dissolute Roman Saturnalia, and grew increasingly raucous until its reputation had become disreputable among the devout by the early modern era.

Other western cultures had their solstice festivals as well. The pre-Christian Germanic lands of northern Europe had ‘Yule,’ and its associated massive log, which was expected to burn in the village square for all twelve days of the festival, and still have enough consumable fuel to provide the starting kindling for next year’s Yule log. The Celts liked to decorate for their solstice festival with pine, holly, and mistletoe.

As Christianity spread out of the Mediterranean area in the first part of the Middle Ages, the Christ’s Mass festivities began incorporating local traditions, such as Yule. A medieval Christmas was twelve days of revelry (partridge in a pear tree optional), beginning on December 25 and ending on ‘Twelfth Night,’ January 5.

The day after Twelfth Night was another important date on the old Christian calendar, celebrating the Epiphany — the arrival of the magi (‘three wise men’) in Bethlehem and the revelation that God was made incarnate in the newborn Jesus. Other sources indicate the Epiphany is in observance of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist many years later. Either way, a heads-up to all of you lazy slackers who leave their Christmas lights up until March — it is considered bad luck to leave Christmas decorations up past Twelfth Night.

The rise of Christianity coincided with the decline of the western Roman Empire. While the religion crawled its way north and west in dribs and drabs, Emperor Constantine shifted the base of operations for the newly-Christian Imperial government eastward, to Byzantium (soon to be renamed Constantinople) on the edge of Asia Minor. So Asia Minor (now Turkey) was really the home base of Christianity for a couple of centuries, where it eventually evolved into its own unique flavor — Eastern Orthodox. The eastern portion of the old Roman Empire became known to historians as the Byzantine Empire, and took on many Hellenistic (Greek) cultural traits.

St. Nicholas originates here.

Lycia, in ancient times an independent kingdom, and in the 300s a largely self-governing province in the eastern Roman empire, was tucked away along the southwest coast of Asia Minor. The terrain was rugged and its inhabitants were mostly Greek-speaking. Its principal port town was Myra, although the once-bustling harbor has long since silted up, and Myra itself is now nothing more than archaeological ruins.

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old asia minor

Detail of rectangle in the above map

Keep in mind that there is no historical evidence that the person that became known as St. Nicholas ever existed. The Catholic Church demoted him on their ‘calendar of saints’ in 1969 due to this lack of historical verification. (Along with 93 others, whose origins were ‘more mystery than manuscripts,’ according to a Church spokesperson, although they retained full sainthood.) All information about — and images of — St. Nicholas came from sources working centuries after his supposed death. So he could be as imaginary as his later incarnation, Santa Claus.

With that in mind, let’s tell his story.

Nicholas was born in Patara, another Lycian city a few miles west of Myra, in March of 270, and would have answered to the Greek form of his name, Nikolaos. His parents were wealthy Greek Christians who died when Nicholas was still in his teens. He gave away his inherited fortune to the needy, and soon became an ordained priest in Myra, where his reputation for generosity began to grow. (Some sources say he was never ordained, but was a ‘lay brother,’ or monk, in his early years.) According the legend, one of his first acts as a man of the cloth was to surreptitiously, in the darkness of three successive nights, slip bags of gold through the window of a family who could not provide proper dowries for their three daughters and were about to sell them into prostitution. He was caught by the father on the third night, and Nicholas swore him to secrecy, wanting the good deed to remain totally anonymous.

The father evidently did not keep his promise, as soon Nicholas became a kind of Byzantine Superman. Stories shared among the Lycians had him rescuing drowning sailors, reanimating dead children who had been pickled in brine, freeing unjustly accused prisoners, calming hurricanes, teleporting himself, flying, and so on.

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Young Nicholas, depicted as he may have looked when he became a bishop, c. 300

Around 300, Nicholas was elevated to the post of Bishop of Myra. Later visual depictions of him often had him clad in red and white bishop’s robes, a color scheme that would remain associated with him. It was around this time that Diocletian (r. 284-305), the last Roman Emperor who made a policy of persecuting Christians, had Nicholas imprisoned and tortured, some said for as long as a decade. Diocletian’s successor, Constantine, not only ended the persecutions (and freed Nicholas), he converted the Empire to Christianity.

By 325, early Christianity was already splintering into factions. Constantine called together the First Council of Nicaea to iron out the differences and get everyone on the same page. Over 1,800 bishops attended, Nicholas supposedly among them. Things got heated. Nicholas was the center of attention at one point when he belted the leader of the Arianism sect right in the chops. (The Arianists believed Christ himself was not a part of God as stated by the Trinitarians, but a separate and distinct “Son of God.” Nicholas was a staunch Trinitarian, evidently.)

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Nicholas died on December 6, 343, and was likely entombed in a fourth century church on the nearby island of Gemile, the ruins of which can still be seen. The church in Myra that was the seat of his bishopric was torn down or crumbled away. Anything he wrote, if he wrote anything at all, was lost. The only things that remained, for 200 years, were the fantastical stories. Nicholas was a righter of wrongs, a defender of religious orthodoxy, and a special protector of children and sailors.

Some of these stories finally got jotted down in the late 500s, and provide the first written mention of Nicholas (apart from his name scrawled on the ruined wall of the church on the aforementioned island of Gemile). He remained an immensely popular figure, especially among sailors working the Mediterranean coast, who enjoyed spreading the Nicholas tales as far as Italy. His church in Myra was rebuilt. Locals gave gifts to each other in his name. Michael the Archimandrite finally produced the first full-length manuscript to survive into the modern era, The Life and Wondrous Works of our Father Nikolaos, Bishop of Myra, in Lycia in the late 800s. Then came Simeon Metaphrastes’ The Life of St. Nicholas about a hundred years later. Both were based on oral traditions and earlier written sources now lost, and are the basis for pretty much everything we know about the figure of St. Nicholas.

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St. Nicholas as imagined by the Renaissance. Detail from the 1490 Florentine painting The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot by Piero Di Cosimo

There is no fixed date for when he officially became a saint. The standardizing of the canonization procedure was not fixed until the 1100s, and Nicholas had been referred to as a saint for at least 300 years before that. His feast day was observed on the traditionally accepted date of his death, December 6.

As the Arabs made more and more incursions along the southern Turkish coast, Nicholas’s remains were moved to his re-built church in Myra, where they were treated as a shrine with healing properties for the next 400 years. By 1087, the Muslim Turks were overrunning Asia Minor, so concerned sailors (Nicholas’ biggest fanboys) spirited the bones of the saint across the sea to a safer place — Bari, on the heel of Italy’s boot. There they remain to this day, in the Basilica de San Nicola, built especially to accommodate Nicholas’s relics. Continue reading

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The Last of the Antenna TV Generation

TVIt can be mildly frustrating being on the dividing line between generations. I am on the younger end of “Generation X,” and a few years too old to be a “Millennial.” I’m that between-the-cracks age that is young enough to spend a lot of money on games from Steam, but old enough to remember Betamax tapes. Can’t remember John Belushi as an SNL cast member, but can remember Julia Louis-Dreyfus as an SNL cast member. Young enough to have grown up mostly with cable TV and the plethora of options it offers, but old enough to (barely) remember when the family TV in its polished wooden cabinet was still wired to an antenna on the roof, and the smaller TV in the den had rabbit ears. Too young to remember TV sitcoms of the 1960s and early 70s during their original run, but old enough to have seen them when they were still widely syndicated on local channels through the beginning of the 1990s.

So I have a comfortable familiarity with The Beverly Hillbillies, I Dream of Jeannie, My Three Sons, The Addams Family, The Brady Bunch, and so many more, even though I wasn’t around to watch them on a network in prime time when they first aired. People approximately my age are probably the last of those who do know these shows, unless they were “outdoors” in the late afternoons, engaging in “organized sports” or some other pointless shit instead of sprawled in front of the TV where the good stuff was. (Mid-mornings were also a primo time for these shows, perfect for summer vacations and sick days.)

Knowledge of these shows drops off precipitously for people even just a few years younger than me. The mid-1990s would be right when those slightly younger folks graduated from cartoons and kids’ programming to regular TV, and is also right when syndicators began dumping re-runs of long-gone shows in favor of re-runs of shows still being made, which seemed wrong somehow. Not to mention the fact that hot garbage like Home Improvement and Family Matters can’t hold a candle to timeless works of art like Gilligan’s Island and Mr. Ed. Basic cable’s “Nick At Nite” programming kept the flame alive for awhile, but even they began to prefer Fresh Prince of Bel Air to Welcome Back, Kotter by the early 2000s.

(Another influx of truly old-school entertainment came when I slept over at my grandparents, which happened at least one weekend a month from 1977 to 1985. They had only one TV in their house, so I watched what Grandma and Grandpa watched…and they were born in 1909. So it was a parade of Bob Hope specials, The Love Boat with its gallery of washed-up mid-century celebrities, The Lawrence Welk Show, Hee Haw, and the last of gasps the network variety shows, which were almost extinct by the early 1980s. Even at age seven, I remember thinking Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters was kind of a horrid trainwreck. Luckily, the grandparents were tucked into their Bert-and-Ernie twin beds at 9:00, so I was free to watch the Duke boys tear ass through Hazzard County, then turn the TV off as Dallas started, and watching the picture shrink to a tiny glowing dot in the middle of the screen that lingered for several minutes.)

The mildly frustrating part comes in when I’m dealing with someone even just a little bit younger (I’m on the cusp, remember?), and realize our frames of reference don’t match up, and then feel incredibly old. (“Remember when Pat Sajak had that famously bad late night talk show? ‘No?’! What do you mean, ‘Who’s Pat Sajak?’! He’s still on TV, for chrissakes! Oh, you only watch streaming shows…”)

A one-sided version of this scenario came up most recently for me when I started listening to the podcast Seincast, which, as you would expect, is a discussion and analysis of individual episodes of Seinfeld (a show I fully supported going into early syndication, because I got to watch even more of it.) The podcast hosts, Vinny and Matt, are for the most part enjoyable and certainly know their Seinfeld…as long as it’s confined to the Seinfeld universe. They are grown men with respectable day jobs (Vinny is actually a pharmacist.) But every so imageoften, I (internally) cry out is dismay as the hosts reveal their status as ignorant pups bumbling across my audio lawn by completely misunderstanding — or missing entirely — an older cultural reference that Seinfeld will make from time to time. I can almost hear the whizzing sound as the name or phrase sails over their heads. How can a someone as grown-up as a pharmacist not recognize a reference to A Streetcar Named Desire? And they seem to not realize Elaine and Jerry’s frequent inside-joke refrain of “all-right-sir” is quoting Tom Snyder. They have admitted to never having seen a second of The Dick Van Dyke Show. They had never heard the old expresson “nothing to sneeze at,” and assumed it was a creation of the show’s writers. This sort of thing will happen at least once per episode, and it makes me start every podcast with the thought, “I wonder what these kids aren’t going to get this time?”

I’m sure poor Vinny and Matt are inundated on the Seincast Facebook and Twitter accounts with corrections or clarifications from crotchety older listeners. But they rarely acknowledge it on the next episode. I admire their “keep moving forward” philosophy, but c’mon, give the old folks some closure. Even stoner comic Doug Benson has a “Corrections Departmentduring the next episode whenever he or a guest flubs a film fact on the Doug Loves Movies podcast.

For those in the know, a lot of those old TV shows can still be found if you look hard enough. Deep down the cable channel list, between Laotian soap operas and equestrian coverage, you’ll find Antenna TV and MeTV, both of which feature the type of stuff I was raised on. I hadn’t seen Hogan’s Heroes in decades. I’d forgotten how adorably zany Nazis could be. 

I first discovered Antenna TV when I heard they were showing old Tonight Show episodes from the Johnny Carson’s Burbank era (1972-1992). As a kid during summer vacations, I would stay up to watch Carson and Late Night with David Letterman. During the school year when I went to bed earlier, I set the timer on the VCR and watched them on tape after school the next day. Carson was a big part of my formative years, and I was excited he would be on regularly once more, from beyond the grave. So I set my TiVo accordingly, and it’s hardened into a daily habit again. I get home from work, handle whatever minor domestic chores need to be done, put on my loungewear, climb into my massage recliner with a cold drink, and the well-known (to some of us) brassy intro to Paul Anka’s Tonight Show theme is blaring out of my TV’s sound bar by 5:30 or a little after.

250px-Tonightshowtitlecard1980sThere is no rhyme or reason to the order that Antenna TV airs the episodes. A Tonight Show from 1991 can be followed the next night by one from 1973. If it’s from 1986 or after, I might actually remember watching it when it originally ran. Antenna TV puts the date of the original broadcast on the opening credits, but I try to avoid looking at it, and attempt to guess the year from the contents of the monologue, which is always topical. The challenge is that current events names almost never stay current. On one episode, Johnny made about six references to a “Tamara Rand.” I gave in and looked her up. Turns out she was a psychic who claimed to have predicted the assassination attempt on Reagan, was exposed as a fraud, and never heard from again after a few weeks in early 1981. But, boy, was she the comedic highlight of that single episode of The Tonight Show. I’m sure they have a reason, but Antenna TV does not air episodes from Johnny’s first ten years (1962-1972) when the show was based in New York, which is a shame because I think that would be pretty fascinating. [EDIT: I just learned that NBC wiped and re-used the tapes from the New York era, and only selected highlights remain.]

The guest panel is often a parade of the semi-recently deceased. I look down the couch, thinking “dead…dead…ooh, still alive…dead…” And I can do that because the guests actually stuck around after their segment, they just moved down to make room for the next guest. If they had to leave early, it was remarked upon as out of the ordinary, and they were ceremoniously ushered off. Conan O’Brien tried to keep this tradition alive until relatively recently, but it hasn’t stuck. No celebrity wants to sit outside of the spotlight and just listen politely. Or, more likely, no celebrity’s publicist wants them to do that.

Then as now, guests were on the show to plug a movie or TV show, and I like to use Wikipedia as a time machine to see the fate of that project in a weird form of internet schadenfreude. “Hmmm…looks like Dead Heat didn’t work out for you, Joe Piscopo. In fact, nothing ever will again. Suzanne Pleschette, you seem really excited about that new TV series. Oh, cancelled after seven episodes? Sorry, dear.” Sometimes I don’t need Wikipedia. “Hey, O.J., guess what you’re going to do in about ten years?”

Even though Johnny Carson supposedly pefected the late night talk show format (based on a template sketched out by Steve Allen — current events monologue followed by a comedy bit at the desk, celebrity guests, maybe an interesting or odd civilian guest, closing with a stand-up comedian or musical guest), what strikes me is how late in Johnny’s run that format hardened into tradition, and how much late night talk shows have changed even from that point. Modern late night shows are first and foremost comedy shows, are very high-energy, and move at a pretty fast clip. Unless it’s a mega-star like George Clooney, a guest gets one segment between commercials. And if the guest or host doesn’t get a laugh every thirty seconds (at least), the show feels dead.

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Johnny’s version of the show, at least until its last few seasons, was a genuine talk show, or “chat show” as the Brits accurately call it. Guests just…talked. They weren’t coached by the writing staff, or spoon-fed laugh lines. They would ramble through a lengthy anecdote with minimal payoff. It was often so quiet you could hear an occasional cough from a studio audience member. The post-monlogue desk bit flopped as often as it scored. (You can sometimes see Johnny completely lose interest partway through as the audience sits in what sounds to modern ears like very awkward silence.) Believe it or not, it was actually kind of great — real and relaxed. It was assumed most viewers were winding down and preparing to go to sleep, and none of the content was designed to be viewed in frenetic three-minute clips on the internet the next day. Smoke from Johnny’s under-the-desk cigarette would often drift lazily into the picture as the camera focused on McLean Stevenson talking about his socks for eight minutes. (If it was a 70s episode, both Johnny and the guests would openly puff away. An ashtray was always on the table in front of the guest couch.) Carson bent over backward to make his guest funny or interesting if they weren’t pulling it off for themselves. Amy Irving was a fairly frequent guest. She was (and is) a brilliant actress, and I’m sure she’s a gracious human being, but it was like interviewing a dead carp — you can see Johnny working. (Charles Nelson Reilly, on the other hand, I’ll sometimes rewind and watch twice.) Continue reading

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